- Appeasement will make this the norm
This past Friday was the third consecutive week that Maulana Abdul Aziz, the illegal occupant and self-proclaimed khateeb of Islamabad’s Lal Masjid, invited and encouraged worshippers to pray standing close to each other in usual formation. But these are exceptional times with a highly contagious virus on the prowl looking for such gatherings to spread even more rapidly than it already is. Aziz is not your typical firebrand cleric and is constantly locking horns with law enforcement and intelligence agencies; ISI headquarters happen to be a stone’s throw from the infamous Lal Masjid, his stronghold. When he isn’t spewing hate through the loudspeaker, he is creating mischief in other ways. And why wouldn’t he? Since the Lal Masjid operation during the Musharraf years that he escaped disguised in a burqa, he has not faced the sort of restrictive sentencing that he deserves. Aziz has been charged for his latest transgressions as he was the week before as well. The charges include anti-state speech and violation of a ban on collective prayer, but his FIR remains sealed and no action can be taken until it is unsealed. This is in stark contrast to an incident in Karachi on the same day where a female police SHO, attempting to restrict a large gathering at a local mosque, was beaten up by a mob and pelted with stones. An FIR has been registered against the mosque’s management and others.
Religious sensitivities in Pakistan tend to take precedence over public safety. The most recent example of this is the TLP’s countrywide violent protests after the Supreme Court ordered the release of Aasia Bibi, who spent close to a decade behind bars under trumped-up blasphemy charges. The writ of the state was as absent back then as it is right now. But there wasn’t an ongoing global pandemic then, there is one now, and it is killing people on a daily basis. Appeasement of the actions of ignorant yet influential individuals, such as Maulana Aziz, will encourage more of his kind to do the same, leading indirectly to deaths. Most of Punjab’s over 2000 coronavirus cases include either attendees of the Tableeghi Jamaat in Lahore or pilgrims returning from Iran. These were avoidable cases, now they are the core cause of contagion in the province. It is criminal to allow out-of-control clerics to do as they please. Strict action must be taken, otherwise it will become the norm.